It's inescapable that the GOP has a Donald Trump problem—though some now have reason to hope that Trump himself may start to fade, if not tumble, in the wake of his spat with Megyn Kelly, a typically operatic bit of reality TV. (Having Erick Erickson, whom Kelly has excoriated for his sexism, come to her aid in the aftermath must surely have given Kelly an added laugh, and given us all reason to wish the contest were more in mode of "Survivor.") But even if Trump were to magically disappear overnight, that would only end the most obvious, and superficial, aspect of the GOP's Trump problem, which is not Trump himself -- what he is, says and does -- so much as it's the GOP's necrotic, post-autopsy condition that called him forth, like a demon summoned from the underworld.
Trump himself may or may not stay around—he could even run as an independent—but the GOP's real Trump problem, call it the “deep Trump problem,” is what his emergence says about the party's pathetic weakness, both as an institution, and as reflected in its presidential field (underscored again in the Fox debate). It's the problem behind the problem that the GOP's post-2012 autopsy was supposed to solve. The party has long thrived on the power of comforting (and threat-managing) conservative narratives, backed by massive cash flows, with little regard—if not outright disdain—for how the narratives relate to reality. But the institutional power to pull this trick off is no longer the equal of the irrational powers it has successfully summoned for so long. There is no master sorcerer in charge, and the sorcerer's apprentice is in way over his head.
Take Trump out of the GOP presidential race—as so many establishment types hope or expect to happen—and what do you have left? No one who looks really promising, which is why Trump could make such a big splash in the first place. Bush was always even more problematic as the Establishment candidate than Romney had been—Romney averaged around 20 percent or more for three years before the primaries began, Bush averaged less than 15 percent the last two years—and his debate performance was typically flat, devoid of distinction. He did falsely claim, “our economy grew at double the rate of the nation,” when the real difference was far more modest: Florida's per-capita GDP grew 19.8 percent over Bush's two terms (2.5 percent per year), compared to 16.4 percent nationwide (2.1 percent annually), and was due to a housing bubble, which later went bust. But why would anyone even notice?
As for the supposed debate winners—Rubio, Kasich and Fiorina (in the under-card)—they all have profound problems of their own, under-scrutinized so far, because of their poor standings. The already-struggling Rubio, who actually advertised his lack of a résumé, has been decimated by Trump's rise, dropping more than 50 percent since Trump entered the race in five-poll rolling averages, more than Huckabee or Carson, and more than double Scott Walker. Kasich, although long on résumé, has nothing outstanding to point to (Ohio job growth is subpar, for example). And then there's failed businesswoman (and failed Senate candidate) Carly “Demon Sheep” Fiorina. The fact that candidates like these are getting buzz only underscores how pathetic the party is, and how far its infatuation with campaign rhetoric has gotten divorced from reality. In the GOP's deluded imagination, Fiorina “proves” that the party's war on women is a myth—pay no attention to the latest lie-based crusade to destroy Planned Parenthood. In the real world, the fact that Fiorina's presidential bid is taken seriously after losing a Senate bid by 10 points proves just the opposite: how desperate for cover the misogynist GOP is, and how shamelessly they practice the very promotion of “unqualified women and minorities” (see Herman Cain, Ben Carson, Alan Keyes) that they claim to abhor.
This large, but unpromising field is really no surprise, however. It's just what you should expect when big money and ideological powerhouses essentially eclipse the traditional party structure. The centrifugal process has been underway for decades, but now it's reached a crisis—witness the GOP's inability to act on their own 2012 autopsy, which we'll return to below.
Conservatives' Latest Psycho-dynamic Turn
The result of this process is both messy and complex, though Joan Walsh and Chauncey DeVega were both onto something highly significant calling attention to a disturbing new right-wing meme for attacking—other conservatives!
First, Walsh explained:
The spread of the epithet “cuckservative” is a sign that the crudest psycho-sexual insecurity animates the far right.
“Cuckservative,” you see, is short for a cuckolded conservative. It’s not about a Republican whose wife is cheating on him, but one whose country is being taken away from him, and who’s too cowardly to do anything about it.
OK, that’s gross and sexist enough already, but there’s more. It apparently comes from a kind of pornography known as “cuck,” in which a white husband, either in shame or lust, watches his wife be taken by a black man.
Then DeVega added an extensive examination of historical roots and psychological resonances involved, adding the crucial point that there's something other than traditional interracial cuckolding involved:
No, this camp of aggrieved and imperiled white men, drunk on toxic white masculinity, are terrified of their supposed status as “victims” in a more inclusive and cosmopolitan 21st century America. Whereas cuckolding has its foundations in eroticism, the term “cuckservative” has evolved from a related, but ultimately very different, psychosexual fixation: racialized castration anxieties....
The legacy of the South’s planter class — the 1 percent [of] its time, who profited from the blood of the slave plantations, work camps, tenant labor, sharecropping fields, and chain gangs — is also seen in the contemporary Republican Party. When the Republican Party’s leaders and media elites talk about “makers and takers” and “lazy” American workers, when they wage war on the poor and the social safety net, what we’re seeing is the new political economy of neoliberalism mated with the philosophical legacy of the planter class.
An Institutional Historical Framework
The insights I've barely sampled are crucial for understanding the GOP's psycho-dynamics, which increasingly drive a party long out of touch with empirical reality. But if we want a better empirical grasp of what's happening with them, we need to look to institutional histories as well. Two books are particularly helpful in this regard. The first is "Democracy Heading South: National Politics in the Shadow of Dixie" by Augustus B. Cochran III, the second is "Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy" by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson.
Cochran's thesis was that the U.S. in 2000 was strikingly similar to the South in 1950 as described in V.O. Key’s classic work, "Southern Politics in State and Nation," as I recently described here at Salon, as an aid to understanding Bill Clinton's politics:
Cochran argued that the structures were different, but the functions were the same, like the relationship between gills and lungs. “Key argued that because Southern politics lacked strong, responsive parties, was based on a narrow electorate, and was designed to perpetuate white supremacy, Southern electoral institutions lacked the coherence, continuity, and accountability that could make Southern politics rational and democratic,” Cochran noted. And he argued that just as these factors hobbled the South’s ability to become an industrial democracy, a parallel set of constraints were crippling America’s ability to become a postindustrial democracy.
Cochran also pointed out that Southern politics was a prime form of entertainment. Southern politicians were much better at telling stories than they were at building (much less fixing) roads.
Many of the institutions today are different, but the functions are similar. Most notably, the one-party system functioning as a money-and-media, elite-serving no-party system has been replaced by a gridlocked, two-party system functioning as a money-and-media, elite-serving no-party system. While most of U.S. history has seen one party or another dominate Congress and the White House for periods of roughly 36 years, the 1968 election began a long period of dealigned government, in which divided government was the rule. And this is the system under which—as I noted here recently—the bottom 90 percent lost 12.45 percent in average income between 1973 and 2008, while the top 1 percent gained 3.51 percent per year. That's why it makes a lot of sense to regard it as a period of de facto one-party rule.
But there's more to the story. In "Off Center," Hacker and Pierson had a similar view of democratic dysfunction. "[T]hanks to personality-focused elections, run through a news media that provides increasingly little in the way of substantive information, most voters find it hard even to learn the basics. Political elites know this well," they wrote. But Hacker and Pierson focused on how GOP operatives had gamed this system in a particular, highly coordinated way, closer to an old Southern oligarchic clique, as Cochran might have argued, than to a traditional political party. With redistricting narrowing the number of competitive seats in Congress, powerful, well-financed ideological groups gained substantially greater leverage—no reason for GOP candidates to seek out the center to win general elections, the only threat they faced was from the right.
Together, these two books help us understand how America's political institutions have been hijacked by elites in general on the one hand, and by well-organized ideological extremists on the other. Standing at the intersection of these two forces are figures like the Koch brothers, who spent decades laying the foundations for the Tea Party, and a growing number of other billionaire mega-donors given unprecedented political power via the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision. But now, the fact that just one such mega-donor can keep a candidate alive indefinitely is just one facet of how different the current political environment is—with or without Donald Trump. Inadvertently, it seems, self-satisfied elites have let loose centrifugal forces far more powerful than they can control.
To really understand what's happening with the GOP now, we have to combine this institutional framework with social psycho-dynamics that Walsh and DeVega pointed out, which have a powerful centrifugal force of their own. Not surprisingly, there's strong opposition to connecting these two realms, often expressed in common political narratives. When Rush Limbaugh inveighs against GOP elites, for example, he's masking the fact that he owes his entire career to them. In 1987, Reagan's FCC chair, Dennis R. Patrick, eliminated the Fairness Doctrine, which opened the doors for the creation of right-wing talk radio. No need for balance, no need to serve the public interest.
Also, no possibility of a true left-wing counterpart, for at least two major reasons: First, the money from (elite!) advertisers would never flow so freely, and second, the affect-oriented, demonizing rhetoric that's Limbaugh's stock in trade has no comparable left-wing equivalent. Lest anyone doubt Limbaugh's importance, let's remember how Gingrich had him give a pep talk to GOP Congress members after winning control of Congress in 1994. And to clarity his function, David Niewert's award-winning analysis, “Rush, Newspeak and Fascism,” explained (among many other things) Limbaugh's role as a transmitter of hard right ideas, attitudes, myths and fixations into the broader conservative mainstream.
One must also understand Limbaugh's anti-elitism—much like Trump's—as a posture typical of elite-serving fascism, long seen in America in an ideological orientation known as “producerism.” This posture situates middle classes as subject to attacks on two fronts—from elites above, and “parasites” below. In practice, the “parasites” are hated for who they are, elites for what they do—when they do anything that might help the parasites. Thus, Trump the billionaire who calls Mexicans “rapists” is automatically excused: He's not an elite, he's magically “one of us.”
This is the key nexus of how “social issues” and economic issues interact: “right-wing populists” are only anti-elitist in this narrowly manipulable sense, and “social issues” only matter as a way to stigmatize those who can be looked down on. And who is better at looking down at people than Donald Trump? It's arguably the most central aspect of his character. It's also the very essence of today's GOP.
The Problem Behind the Problem
Earlier, I referred to the GOP's deep Trump problem as “the problem behind the problem that the GOP's post-2012 autopsy was supposed to solve.” It's time to unpack what that means. In the autopsy's very first section, the “Introduction to Messaging,” it said:
The GOP today is a tale of two parties. One of them, the gubernatorial wing, is growing and successful. The other, the federal wing, is increasingly marginalizing itself...
Republicans have lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections. States in which our presidential candidates used to win, such as New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, Iowa, Ohio, New Hampshire, Virginia, and Florida, are increasingly voting Democratic. We are losing in too many places.
So the document's entire thrust can be seen as an extended effort to remake the national GOP in the model of its governors—governors who, by the very nature of the job, are generally much more pragmatically oriented (though many also win in off-year elections, with much smaller, more right-leaning electorates). As soon as it was released, Joan Walsh noted it was hard to see an organized constituency for the advised changes, “while there’s plenty of party opposition,” pointing directly at two prominent representatives:
“Let’s be clear about one thing, we’re not here to rebrand a party,” Sarah Palin declared [at CPAC] Saturday. “We’re here to rebuild a country.” Rush Limbaugh has already declared war on Priebus and his makeover plans. “The Republicans are just getting totally bamboozled right now,” Limbaugh told his listeners. “The Republican Party lost because it’s not conservative, it didn’t get its base out.” People say they need to moderate their tone — they don’t.” He dismissed Priebus’ project as designed to soothe the party’s “donor base.”
Limbaugh was right about one thing: The “donor base” is why the GOP's done so much better with governors. There's a variety of reasons for that, not least the fact that states are smaller entities, where it's easier for donors to coordinate their efforts, and it's more immediately in their interest not to kill the goose that lays the golden egg. But Walsh also ended her piece saying, “His autopsy won’t make sense until Republicans realize their party is dead as a national entity at least in its current paranoid, polarizing incarnation.” And here's the twist: Nationally—as pointed out above—the GOP's donor base has spent decades creating that very same “paranoid, polarizing incarnation.” It's their formula, nobody else's. Certainly not Donald Trump. He is, as he claims, just a player. He didn't invent the game, which is why all attempts to use a “base vs. donor” model—rather than a synergistic “base and donor” model—are bound to miss what's most significant here, the heart of what the GOP's deep Trump problem is all about.
It's the myopic fecklessness of today's conservative elites that's the real story here. That's the GOP's real deep Donald Trump problem. They're way bigger clowns than he ever dreamed of being.